An American Lazarus

Good morning from Singapore.

Waking up curled over two chairs in the Singapore airport, contorted into a fetal position far too compact for my size, I’m thankful again of my “superpower.”

I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. And it doesn’t matter if a freight train or a hurricane is coming, you’ll have to send someone to roust me.

Spiderman can keep his webs, and I never really wanted X-ray vision anyway, Superman. I’ll keep my weaponized narcolepsy. It has served me incredibly well, especially in the always fluid sleeping conditions of Southeast Asia. Whether a dorm full of incredibly drunk 19 year old shouting Brits or the coffin berth of a 12 hour sleeper bus, I slap on a history podcast and I’m out faster than a fat kid in dodgeball.

The older I get the more I realize how fantastic this ability is.

I’m leaving Southeast Asia tonight, headed onto South Africa. I’ve spent the last 3.5 months on the adventure of a lifetime. I experienced the horrors of war, as well as came to a better understanding of America’s legacy in Vietnam. I got an up close view the charismatic, maniacal and efficient evil of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

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I saw some of the most beautiful natural places on earth, from 5 mile long caves to pristine waterfalls, untouched and underdeveloped.

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I got to walk in the ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Angkor Wat.

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I played with monkeys and rode on elephants.

 

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I wrecked motorbikes and taught monks English.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

 

I got to see a military coup first hand, and debate political issues with people from a half dozen countries almost nightly. In three weeks I developed a bond with a man who taught me a lot about addiction and even more about the human condition. I saw a girl who was incredibly lucky to “only” have 40 stitches in her head, and I saw a surfer who was not so lucky as his lifeless body was pulled from the Bali barrels.

I agreed to travel hundreds of miles with people I’d met mere minutes before and “evaded” organ snatchers in remote Laotian towns. I learned to communicate with only hand gestures and a smile to bridge a language gap. I learned the art of Thai boxing at the hands of gentle madmen, and learned to cook the cuisines of a half dozen nations.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

In short, I lived life. Frankly, a helluva lot of it. I grew more than I would have in the next 5 years of my “normal” life. I was in more uncomfortable situations in 100 days than I can count, but I managed to make it out of all of them with barely a scratch.

They say the best journeys are the ones where you find something you didn’t know you were missing. I found something better.

I found a man that I thought died years ago. A guy who laughed first and frowned rarely. The one who looked at the world with the endless optimism of the boy taken to a barn full of horseshit, started smiling before saying, “There must be a pony around here somewhere.”

He looked a lot like a guy who had become a nasty cynic. One who had been paid well to delude himself into thinking that he was smarter than everyone else in the room. One who thought that a growing number on a bank account was going to magically fix an unfulfilling life. One who had put a reckless love of risk before an awful lot of things that actually mattered in this life. One who’d forgotten that the happiest moments really are free, or damn near to it.

It isn’t very often that someone crawls out of an unmarked grave, but I’m glad I came across it.

That’s what meaningful travel does. It reacquaints you with the best versions of yourself. It shows you overcoming obstacles to reveal a character and mental fortitude you didn’t realize that you’d had.

And thank God it does. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found that man I thought had died. And he’s a helluva lot better than the one who got on a plane in Chicago in March.

Farewell Southeast Asia. You’ve done more for me than you’ll ever know.

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.